Pain and Anger, Solidarity and Engagement

Like many citizens around the country, I have been deeply disturbed by the reports of  African-American men being shot by police officers. Of course, the words “deeply disturbed” fail to convey the pain and anger generated by the latest violence. At lunch time today students and others stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There is so much eloquence in their shared, communal silence.

From AJ Wilson Twitter Post
From AJ Wilson Twitter Post

This afternoon a group of Cabinet members and I sent the following to the campus:

As we continue to witness acts of violence around our country – especially toward black and brown and other marginalized persons – we are filled with many strong emotions based upon our own identities and experiences.  But, we all worry about those of us and those in our communities who are impacted by these events in myriad ways. 

As a sign of our solidarity and our commitment to do whatever we can to address bias and inequity in our hearts, on our campus, and in our communities, we ask you to gather in the Huss Courtyard outside of Usdan on Tuesday 9/27 at noon.  Immediately after this moment of silence and reflection, members of the CAPS team will be available in Boger 111 and staff from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will be available in Usdan 104D for faculty, staff and students who may want to (or need to) talk about recent events.

Beyond this visible sign of solidarity, we commit to continue our personal and institutional work toward peace, justice, equity and inclusion.  We hope that you will too.

I will be traveling for Wesleyan on Tuesday, but I will be with the group in spirit in the Huss Courtyard at noon. Solidarity is crucial to building our community and to making a difference.

Solidarity is crucial and so is engagement. This is a season of change, an election season. I urge all our students, as well as faculty and staff, to play active roles as citizens. The stakes are so high.

On Rankings and Recognition

I was standing at a bus station in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a few days ago when an email arrived with the subject “congratulations!” Trustee Leo Au ’71 was sending me a link to Forbes magazine, which had just published its list of America’s Top Colleges. Wesleyan was featured in the top ten, along with research universities like Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, and liberal arts colleges like Williams, Pomona and Swarthmore.

Despite knowing that ranking schools is more magazine public relations than science, and despite the tendency to reward the wealthiest schools with the highest rankings (all the schools in the Forbes’ top 10 except Wesleyan have endowments way over a billion dollars), I have to admit I was tickled to see alma mater get this recognition. This magazine (unlike U.S. News) paid more attention to outputs (how our alumni and faculty are doing) than inputs (how much do we spend per student, how many applicants do we reject), and I couldn’t help but think that we did well here because of the impact our grads are having beyond the university.

Speaking of impact, earlier this summer the World Economic Forum reported that the Princeton Review again named Wesleyan one of the best colleges for “making an impact.” Once again, on this scale Wes ranked in the top 10. We have long known that our school is energized by many who want to use their education to make a positive difference in the world, and it was good to see this recognized. On this subject, folks might want to check out my online class How to Change the World, currently running on Coursera.

I still think that all college rankings are pretty artificial, and that prospective students should find the right fit with a school rather than choose a place on which a magazine has conferred prestige. There are hundreds of great schools out there for students who want to work and learn. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni puts it “where you go is not who you’ll be.”

But it’s gratifying to see Wesleyan faculty and alumni recognized for the great work they do every year—whatever the rankings.


Wesleyan in London

Kari and I are in London for a few days. She gave a paper at a conference on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and I hosted an event with about 50 Wesleyans who live on this side of the Atlantic. There was a great mix of folks at the event. Alumni from each decade since the 1960s, and current students studying abroad—and even a few pre-frosh from the Class of 2020.

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a few of my old students who have settled in London. I love hearing about the variety of ways their education continues to resonate in their lives and work.

We’ve seen some great art and have marveled at the new buildings that seem to be sprouting is this incredibly busy city. Think I’ll head over to the Freud Museum to get my bearings…


IMG_2420 IMG_2422

Tomorrow, back to Middletown!

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.


Wes Conversations Making a Difference

This morning I sent the email below to all Wesleyan students. I want to remind students that many of the issues they have raised have resulted in positive changes at Wesleyan. Of course, we haven’t pleased everybody, but we have listened carefully to how we can make alma mater an educational institution that aims at continuous improvement.

Dear friends,

A little over a week ago, after taking in some wonderful thesis projects at the Zilkha Gallery, I went over to Davison to view the exhibition of renowned photographer Philip Trager ’56 and listen in on his conversation with his long-time friend Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. Andy has written an essay for Phil’s latest book, based on the pictures on display. The exhibit itself reflected a half-century’s visual conversation between Philip and his wife Ina and stimulates deep contemplation about long-term relationships. Certainly Philip and Ina have had a long-term relationship to Wesleyan, and they announced at the Davison that they have made yet another generous gift of prized images to the university collection.

When Philip was a student here in the ’50s, he surely never thought he’d be back in 2016. I doubt few of you have thought about being back here decades hence, but I have no doubt that many of you will be back. For Wesleyan has made contributions to your life and you have contributed to the life of Wesleyan. Indeed, the two are intertwined – in the projects that you’ve shared with others, in your athletic efforts on behalf of your teammates, in your theatrical collaborations, in the friendships you’ve made. And, of course, in your ideas on how to improve our university.

You’ve made your ideas known through gentle suggestions, vigorous public demonstrations, written arguments, and informal conversations passed along over a meal. And we have heard you. Your concern about social life with the closure this year of Greek Houses prompted us to make more funds available to sponsor large gatherings. Many students were experiencing long wait times for certain counseling services, and so we hired a new staff member in CAPS and have focused on more responsive protocols. When young alumni pointed out that even small loans could be a burden for folks from low-income families, we increased the no-loan threshold of family income. This, combined with changes to expected family (often student) payments, should ease some of the burdens we’ve heard about, as should our new emergency fund to support those in need who encounter unexpected expenses during the school year. When students expressed worries about running out of meal points before the end of term, we set up a fund to help; we also plan to provide more flexibility for students to use meals during the semester. And when students pointed out problems with our summer housing, we reduced housing costs for students with high financial need. Don’t get me wrong: I know that these steps haven’t eliminated all the issues, but I do think they are signs of progress.

We also launched a mentoring program and skill-building workshops for those students who might benefit from additional support as they transition to Wes. We have responded to your concerns about course access by adding additional sections in high-demand areas, such as computer science, economics, and psychology. Our shared concerns about faculty departures in African American Studies has led to hiring two new full-time members of the program and others who work in this field. The new Workshop at Hewitt 8 is the result of a student proposal last year. And we will soon see the report of the Equity Task Force, which should help us improve the campus experience more generally. Again, these steps are not meant to be definitive. We must continue to address issues raised by students, faculty and staff.

At Wesleyan we respond to students not as consumers in a transaction, but as members of a community, as participants in an extended conversation. Our goal is always to improve the distinctive quality of the educational experience of our students, whether we’re hiring a new staff member, renovating a building, or deciding a tenure case.

I look forward to hearing more from you—be it at a scheduled appointment (my Drop-In hours are most Mondays 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.), at an impromptu meeting over lunch, or if our paths cross at some event. When we talk about improving our university, we may not always agree, but I trust we are all listening closely. It’s a conversation helpful to Wesleyans now and those who follow. And who knows? It’s a conversation that may last a lifetime.

Campus Planning Framework

Last spring Sasaki Associates & Eastley+Partners worked with student, faculty, staff and alumni groups to develop guidelines for campus planning. After much brainstorming, conversation and analysis, they presented a report detailing five main principles:

1. Synergy of Residential and Academic Experience

How can we create spaces that tie academic work to campus learning more broadly?


2. Network of Informal Learning Spaces

How can we enhance the idiosyncratic spaces in which serendipitous encounters lead to deep learning?


3. Spectrum of Formal Learning Spaces

How can faculty and students collaborate in creating places on campus appropriate to the new ways we teach and learn most effectively?


4. Transparency of Indoor/Outdoor Spaces

How can we plan for spaces that weave a more seamless connection between the interior and exterior landscapes?


5. Engagement Local and Global

 How can the principles of sustainability and stewardship lead to more productive engagement for the Wesleyan community in Middletown and beyond?

You can find a link to the executive summary of the report here. Thanks to the Facilities Committee and all the other Wesleyans who contributed to this effort. Over the course of this year we will begin to plan for campus improvements guided by this work.

How to Destroy Higher Education

The title above is the one The Daily Beast gave to an essay I published earlier this year. Over the last several months I’ve been arguing that the increasing focus on narrow, vocational education is a crucial mistake, one that neglects a deep resource of pragmatic liberal learning. I have been talking about liberal education at various venues around the country since the publication of my book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). I wrote the book, and several op-eds since, because I believe that the kind of education we offer at Wesleyan is more relevant and compelling than ever before. I have argued that the current push for narrow, utilitarian forms of learning are part of the forces legitimating trends toward inequality in our country. The American tradition of liberal education has been a resource to combat inequality, and it can be again.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel, I will be talking about these issues at Wesleyan. I am particularly delighted that my Wesleyan advisor and mentor Henry Abelove, who retired just a few years ago, will come back to campus to introduce the talk.

We’ll be selling and signing copies of Beyond the University (all my royalties are contributed to financial aid at Wesleyan).

I hope to see many of you tomorrow night.

Year-End Thanks

Dear friends,

This year has been exciting in so many ways, and as it draws to a close I want to express my gratitude to the entire Wesleyan family for their many contributions to making our university the creative, caring and engaged place it is. I think back to the first-Friday MASH (the music festival that began to tap into the amazing vitality of students, faculty and staff), the competitive fire of our athletes, the generosity of our volunteers, the passion of our activists…these were all on display over the course of the year. In this, my seventh year, the student body continues to surprise me with its exuberance, commitment and ardent devotion to pursuing lives of purpose and meaning.

In this season, I like to remind folks to check out the faculty bookshelf. From philosophical considerations of concern and communication, to histories of the Ottoman Empire, from accounts of how we learn from experience at the personal level, to accounts of how we have failed to do so at the policy level, our faculty continue to shape the culture all around us. The scholars who produced this work are also spirited teachers who inspire students every week of the semester.

None of the scholarship and teaching would take place without the thoughtful and dedicated contributions of the Wesleyan staff. They make all these achievements possible. The staff’s determined, inventive efforts—from reading admission files to planning graduation events—are at the heart of all we do.

The Board of Trustees guides this institution with generosity, care and intelligence. Whatever differences we may have about specific policies, we are all dedicated to ensuring that our university remains at the forefront of progressive liberal arts education. I am grateful for being part of this team.

With best wishes for a restful break, a joyful holiday and a very happy new year,


Inclusion: Learning from Ability and Disability

Over the last few years I have met several times with students, faculty and staff concerning “differently abled” students. On one level, the university’s policies in this regard are clear:

Wesleyan University is committed to supporting all students in their academic and co-curricular endeavors. Each semester, a number of students document learning, physical, sensory, or psychiatric disabilities which may require reasonable accommodations to ensure access to education, housing, and recreation.

Access is a key word, and we want to make sure that all students — whether they are dealing with broken ankles, depression, or hearing loss — can thrive on our campus. This can be a challenge for all concerned, but all concerned can learn from the challenge; we can learn to try to experience the world from the perspective of people whose abilities may be different from our own.

In our classrooms students with documented disabilities are encouraged to make arrangements for appropriate accommodations. Laura Patey, Associate Dean for Student Academic Resources, can help in this process. This is from her office’s webpage:

Students who request accommodations are required to provide documentation outlining their needs.  In addition, students will need to meet with Dean Patey to discuss how appropriate accommodations or modifications may assist them in participating in campus life or courses and fulfilling course requirements. In addition, Dean Patey will discuss other types of support and services available to all Wesleyan students, such as tutoring programs and writing support through the Writing Workshop.

Like most professors, over the years I’ve worked with many students whose physical and psychiatric disabilities have profoundly influenced the way they think and feel. I have learned much from them about the conventions we used to divide groups into the normal and the abnormal, and I have often admired the capacities these students develop to navigate in a world that privileges particular modes of living and particular cultures. In recent years, the field of Disability Studies has been developing to examine these divisions, privileges and cultures. At Wesleyan, the field is described, in part, as follows: Disability Studies at Wesleyan does not ascribe or attribute disability to specific bodies, psychological conditions, or groups, but rather teaches students to understand the classificatory conventions that decide what is normal/able or abnormal/disabled in a given time and place.  The webpage for this course cluster lists many resources in the field.

In my first year of teaching I worked extensively with a student whose mental illness came, frighteningly, in almost predictable waves. She explained this to me forthrightly, and we studied together very closely in a tutorial on Nietzsche while she was able to do so. Her courage and clear-sightedness were inspiring, although they were not enough to prevent her illness from recurring. I’ve written about this experience in “On A Certain Blindness in Teaching,” and I often think about the many students I’ve had over the years who have faced their problems with extraordinary tenacity, sensitivity and openness. They are hungry to learn, and they teach their teachers so much.

When we invoke with pride the moniker “Diversity University,” we should remember that this also refers to people with a varied abilities/disabilities. In regard to economic inequality I wrote that it was not enough to recruit students from low-income groups and provide financial aid that meets their full need without excessive loans. A similar principle should guide our efforts at inclusion in regard to people with different abilities/disabilities. It is important but not sufficient to provide access, including the relevant accommodations.  We must create a campus culture in which all can thrive; we must create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

That’s a goal worth striving for, with all the abilities we have.

Inclusion and Economic Inequality

In three prior posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing on race, on gender, and on religious belief and political conviction. In this post I’d like to consider the impact of economic inequality on inclusion.

This summer I read about a new study that examined rates of economic mobility in different parts of the country.  Geography, it seems, matters a great deal in predicting the chances to better one’s relative economic standing. To quote a New York Times blog about the study:

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

There are many variables at play here, and I don’t want to oversimplify the various correlations, but there was one factor that really caught my attention. “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.”

How is this issue related to our own campus culture? Over the last five years, Wesleyan has significantly increased the percentage of Pell eligible students on campus. This coincided with our eliminating required loans for our students with the greatest financial need, and reducing required loans for everybody else (replacing these loans with grants). We also began working with Questbridge, adding this great organization to our many partnerships with community-based organizations. These groups help us to spread the word about Wes and to recruit low-income, high-ability students.

But in our diversity forums last year, I learned that recruiting high-need students is not enough. We also have to create a campus culture in which they can thrive; we have to create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn together and learn from one another.

What does this have to do with the general study of geography and economic mobility across the United States? Insofar as the experience of high need students segregates them from the rest of the student body, we have failed them. We will only get the maximum benefit from our financial aid policies when inclusion is the order of the day for all students – regardless of their economic status. Although I spent many hours working in a kitchen when I was an undergraduate at Wes to pay for my room and board, I was lucky to live in an environment in which this didn’t prevent me from having plenty of interaction with students from various walks of life. My teachers and fellow students never made me feel excluded from the ways they were experiencing Wesleyan.

That was a long time ago, and America today is a land of much greater economic inequality, much greater distance between the haves and the have-nots.

As I’ve written before, on campus we resist this trend because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation. As teachers, we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance — variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in our campus culture these advantages of birth or luck shouldn’t mean much over time. All students at Wes have the opportunity to accelerate and deepen their learning. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, at Wesleyan students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

This week President Obama called for some important reforms in higher education aimed at making college more accessible and at creating a system through which prospective students would have as much information as possible about a school’s real costs, graduation rates, and the outcomes for the graduates. We must be prudent about new regulations because of the perverse incentives they can create, but they do address a real problem. It is unacceptable that so many schools with terrible track records soak up so much federal funding.

Wesleyan has been moving in the direction of sustainable affordability. We’ve announced a three-year option, which allows students to complete the same number of courses typically done over four years by using summer sessions. This saves families about 20 percent off the total tuition. We’ve also announced that we will no longer raise tuition aggressively, keeping increases in line with inflation. Over many years we have become an expensive school, and I know we have a long way to go to becoming more affordable. But this year and next will see our smallest tuition increases ever, and we will stay on this new course.

We will continue to recruit students of extraordinary potential from diverse economic backgrounds, meeting their full financial needs, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that they are fully included in our campus culture. Like those dynamic, integrated regions singled out in the economic mobility study, our campus must create conditions that bring people together in ways that positively enhance their lives. At a time when economic inequality is tearing at the fabric of our country, we must create conditions of inclusion through which all can thrive.